The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK either consisting of patchy US imports or a few local magazines published on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.


If you were lucky, an issue might include something a bit more meaty – an adaptable system-neutral encounter map and description, perhaps, or even a full-blown mini-game like Puppetland – but these treasures are diamonds in the rough when you’re going over the back issues. The fact is that whilst old Dragon or White Dwarf magazines are real goldmines of material which is still useful today, much of the content in more elderly copies of Arcane has aged poorly – the entry-level articles are not going to be telling you anything you don’t already know, for the most part, and tend to reflect a much earlier phase of the conversation around a topic.

Many of the reviews are not going to be remotely as useful as looking up a game’s entry on RPGgeek or whatever and looking up current reviews, and much of the news pieces are at best no longer that relevant, at worst proved hilariously wrong over time as people’s plans changed, promised releases got cancelled, and so on. This doesn’t seem to have been helped by the usual “industry journalist” approach taken where the news section was filled out by rote reporting of people’s press releases, without much examination of whether what companies were promising was actually plausibly going to come to pass. On top of all that, there’s the fact that the research tools available to them at the time were not going to be as advanced as those we have today, so there’d occasionally be outright factual errors which today you could catch with five seconds of Googling, even if at the time they were more understandable.

That said, some of them are interesting in an insight for the assumptions and prejudices the UK gaming industry was working under in the mid-1990s – for instance, there’s an astonishing frequency of mentions of the Satanic Panic, despite the fact that the fundamentalist hysteria had a) largely not touched the UK, at least in terms of gaming went, to nearly the extent it did the US and b) the witch-hunting impulses of populist preachers had already moved on to new targets.

It’s almost like the scene was desperate for the Satanic Panic to have a resurgence, simply to bring attention to a hobby which was feeling overlooked in the light of the rising sophistication of videogames and the emergence of CCGs and was badly afraid for its future. Talk of the demise of RPGs has been ongoing more or less since I entered the hobby, and in the wake of the new waves of people coming into the hobby lately through Critical Role and other popular live-play series appear especially implausible, but in the mid-1990s it seemed more plausible than at any other stage, particularly when it came to the industry.

As always, I am of the opinion that the industry needs the hobby more than the hobby needs the industry; I also feel that the hobby is, and always has been, substantially more healthy than the industry itself. The big problem the tabletop RPG industry has is that it constantly has to sell us new material for a gaming format which has, from its beginning, has had a strong DIY ethos, and whose DIY aspects are arguably so connected to the activity’s unique selling point that they cannot be wholly removed.

However, the industry has done its best to regularly offer new answers to the question “Why do I need a new game?”, and evidence of this is to be found in one of the more interesting articles Arcane produced. About halfway through the magazine’s run, they polled their readers to discover what the top 50 most popular RPGs among their readership was. Though the full numbers breakdown wasn’t published, they did give out the top 50 as a special feature in Issue 14 (Christmas 1996).

When you set aside stuff which eventually got published as a standalone product like Puppetland, I think you can make the case that the Arcane Top 50 chart is the best-remembered article the magazine ever did, and it still gets cited from time to time to this day. Now, to a large extent, that comes down to marketing: getting a good spot on the Top 50 is obviously a significant accomplishment for any game, a publisher who didn’t trumpet that years or even decades after the fact would be an utter fool.

However, I think part of the reason it is a useful marketing point even now, nearly a quarter of a century (Jesus Christ…) after Arcane originally did it, I don’t think anyone has ever undertaken a similar exercise. Thanks in part to the fragmentation of audiences with the rise of the Internet, I think Arcane‘s poll was the last time a platform with an audience the size of Arcane‘s was done concerning this question. This is the closest thing we have to a snapshot of what was popular in the UK tabletop RPG scene at the time, and it reveals a scene which had a significant level of American influence attributable both to our common language and the withdrawal of Games Workshop from the RPG field, but also has interesting differences.

What I think would be an interesting exercise to do, now that over 20 years (Jeeeesus!) have passed, is to take a look at the chart and consider how the various games named on it have fared in the intervening time, as a bellweather of how the market has developed since. Let’s kick off with that top 50 chart itself:

  1. 2300 AD
  2. Mechwarrior
  3. Dragon Warriors
  4. Fighting Fantasy
  5. James Bond 007
  6. Castle Falkenstein
  7. Cyberspace
  8. Dark Conspiracy
  9. Don’t Look Back
  10. Golden Heroes
  11. Heroes Unlimited
  12. HoL
  13. Top Secret/SI
  14. Ghostbusters
  15. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness
  16. Twilight: 2000
  17. Dream Park
  18. Werewolf: the Apocalypse
  19. Tunnels & Trolls
  20. Millennium’s End
  21. Skyrealms of Jorune
  22. Aftermath
  23. Over the Edge
  24. Champions
  25. Palladium Fantasy
  26. Stormbringer
  27. Earthdawn
  28. Conspiracy X
  29. Rifts
  30. Judge Dredd
  31. Space 1889
  32. Ars Magica
  33. Feng Shui
  34. Bushido
  35. Mage: the Ascension
  36. Rolemaster
  37. GURPS
  38. Wraith: the Oblivion
  39. Pendragon
  40. Middle-Earth Roleplaying
  41. Cyberpunk
  42. Star Wars D6
  43. Shadowrun
  44. Paranoia
  45. Vampire: the Masquerade
  46. RuneQuest
  47. WFRP
  48. Traveller
  49. AD&D
  50. Call of Cthulhu

Yes, Call of Cthulhu was number 1. That may or may not be true now, but I can believe it was true then and I can believe it would at the very least be in the running if you reran the poll today; I can actually think of more UK publishers currently (or very recently) producing Call of Cthulhu 3rd party material than D&D third party material at the moment, I could probably get a Call of Cthulhu game going in any UK tabletop gaming club which had spare players.

Now, for some analysis. Here’s the games which I consider to have been alive at the time, commercially speaking:

  • Mechwarrior
  • Castle Falkenstein
  • Heroes Unlimited
  • HoL
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness
  • Werewolf: the Apocalypse
  • Tunnels & Trolls
  • Millennium’s End
  • Over the Edge
  • Champions
  • Palladium Fantasy
  • Stormbringer
  • Earthdawn
  • Conspiracy X
  • Rifts
  • Ars Magica
  • Feng Shui
  • Mage: the Ascension
  • Rolemaster
  • GURPS
  • Wraith: the Oblivion
  • Pendragon
  • Middle-Earth Roleplaying
  • Cyberpunk
  • Star Wars D6
  • Shadowrun
  • Paranoia
  • Vampire: the Masquerade
  • WFRP
  • Traveller
  • AD&D
  • Call of Cthulhu

And, on the flip side, here’s the games which I think you could plausibly consider to be commercially dead at the time of Top 50. In some cases this is due to their producer shutting down and nobody new picking the games in question up, in some cases this is due to the publishers quietly letting the games go out of print, in some cases the games may have still been commercially available at the time but new products were not being put out as of 1996, but either way these games could be described as “not current”.

  • 2300 AD
  • Dragon Warriors
  • Fighting Fantasy
  • James Bond 007
  • Cyberspace
  • Dark Conspiracy
  • Don’t Look Back
  • Golden Heroes
  • Top Secret/SI
  • Ghostbusters
  • Twilight: 2000
  • Dream Park
  • Skyrealms of Jorune
  • Aftermath
  • Judge Dredd
  • Space 1889
  • Bushido
  • RuneQuest

Now, let’s note that Don’t Look Back had enjoyed a 2nd edition and a supplement coming out in 1995 before going into a long hibernation, and no less than five of these games – 2300 ADDark ConspiracyTwilight: 2000, and Space 1889 – are on the list because GDW made the decision to voluntarily shut down in 1995, and of their portfolio only Traveller had managed to find a new home in the intervening year. (This yielded Traveller 4th Edition, a game with a somewhat mixed reception as I’ve related previously – with some of its issues possibly being down to the involvement of the infamously unreliable Ken Whitman.)

Still, even considering this I’d actually say this was evidence in support of the idea that the RPG industry was in trouble in 1996. With 18 of the top 50 RPGs being unavailable, we’re talking about 36% of the games you could arguably consider landmarks of the format – including games like Ghostbusters, James Bond 007, and RuneQuest which represent very significant developments in game design – falling out of view.

A more optimistic interpretation of this information, of course, is that RPG players aren’t utter marks – they are instead an audience who like what they like and don’t need to be constantly fed the Hot New Thing, and if they love a game enough they’ll find a way to keep the flame burning even if it’s commercially dead. That, however, is the sort of thing which is a positive sign for the hobby but a negative sign for the industry – it’s further evidence that the former does not need the latter at all.

So, there’s the state of play in 1996; let’s see which games ended up getting some sort of official new edition in the intervening time:

  • Mechwarrior
  • Dragon Warriors
  • Fighting Fantasy
  • Dark Conspiracy
  • Don’t Look Back
  • Heroes Unlimited
  • Top Secret/SI
  • Twilight: 2000
  • Werewolf: the Apocalypse
  • Tunnels & Trolls
  • Over the Edge
  • Champions
  • Palladium Fantasy
  • Stormbringer
  • Earthdawn
  • Rifts
  • Space 1889
  • Ars Magica
  • Feng Shui
  • Mage: the Ascension
  • Rolemaster
  • GURPS
  • Wraith: the Oblivion
  • Pendragon
  • Cyberpunk
  • Shadowrun
  • Paranoia
  • Vampire: the Masquerade
  • RuneQuest
  • WFRP
  • Traveller
  • AD&D
  • Call of Cthulhu

That’s about two-thirds of the list, including several games which were dead in the water at the time the list game out, so evidently the industry managed to get through the slim times; maybe some companies weren’t still around and several of these games were being put out by new publishers, and maybe other companies had undergone significant internal transformations (like Chaosium), but the games themselves are still commercially healthy enough to sustain new product.

Of course, one of the significant developments since 1996 has been the development of the open gaming concept, the OGL which acted as a handy template for it, and better and more widespread understanding that RPG mechanics generally aren’t covered by intellectual property protection (though the specific expression of them in a text can be subject to copyright). Let’s look at the slate of games from the Top 50 where we haven’t seen a new official edition of the game itself, but the system has been retro-cloned:

  • James Bond 007
  • Golden Heroes
  • Ghostbusters
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness
  • Middle-Earth Roleplaying
  • Star Wars D6

In almost all cases these are licensed games based on intellectual property hailing from outside the tabletop RPG field, where system and setting got divorced when someone gave up or lost the licence. (The major exception is Golden Heroes, which has been the victim of Games Workshop sitting on the rights so far as I can tell.) An interesting case here is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, because it’s a rare case of a game’s retro-clone being put out by the company that originally developed it, with Palladium’s After the Bomb filling the “anthropomorphic ass-kicking animals” niche in their portfolio in a way which doesn’t trespass on the turf of any heroes in a half-shell.

We also have some instances of a game where the setting has been adapted to a new system, but the system itself has not been cloned:

  • 2300 AD
  • Castle Falkenstein
  • Conspiracy X
  • Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd is not a surprise here, since it is another example of a licensed property from outside of RPGs where the licence got reassigned to someone else. In the case of 2300 AD and Conspiracy X, the new official publishers of the settings – Mongoose Publishing and Eden Studios respectively – have made the decision to not use the old system in favour of adapting the settings to their house systems (Mongoose Traveller and Unisystem) instead. As for Castle Falkenstein, it got the GURPS treatment.

The remainder of the games on the list are those which have been abandoned on a creative level – some have remained available to buy, or have become commercially available again after a time out of print, but these do not constitute new editions, merely reprints, and active new design work on the games in question does not seem to be happening.

  • Cyberspace
  • HoL
  • Dream Park
  • Millennium’s End
  • Skyrealms of Jorune
  • Aftermath
  • Bushido

This includes less licensed settings than I was expecting – Dream Park is the only one up there – but I guess that’s because if a licensed setting really has legs, someone will pick up the licence after it’s dropped sooner or later. (Dream Park seems to have been a bit of an awkward game – based on the Larry Niven novel about a VR theme park, it seems to have been written and balanced like it was a generic RPG, rather than an RPG about a characters in a very specific setting who having a bit of a holodeck fun – System Mastery did a good episode on it recently.)

As far as other games which haven’t been creatively revisited since (at least in terms of commercial product and new editions), Aftermath and Bushido seem to have both been victims of Fantasy Games Unlimited’s unwillingness to hand rights to games back to creators, whilst HoL was a joke game which was very much a creature of its time and really wasn’t worth redoing. Skyrealms of Jorune feels like the most significant entry on the list; sure, it’s a bit of a cult thing and it has its issues, but it seems to have a cult following and you would think that some sort of new edition would have emerged by now in some form; perhaps the original IP owners are in a position of on the one hand not having the time to do it themselves, but on the other hand not having the confidence to hand it over to someone else to see what they make of it. You’d think you’d get a modestly successful Kickstarter out of the thing, though.

Aside from Kickstarter, the other major development in RPGs in the intervening years has been the rise of PDF publishing, print-on-demand, and platforms like DriveThruRPG and Lulu. In 1996 keeping a game available essentially meant keeping printed copies on game shop shelves, here in 2020 you can make a game continuously and effectively perpetually available through various channels. Here’s a list of the games in the top 50 which are, at the moment, available through some legitimate channel:

  • 2300 AD
  • Mechwarrior (Renamed as “the Classic Battletech RPG”, but still the same game and setting.)
  • Dragon Warriors
  • Fighting Fantasy
  • Castle Falkenstein
  • Cyberspace
  • Dark Conspiracy
  • Don’t Look Back
  • Golden Heroes
  • Heroes Unlimited
  • HoL
  • Top Secret/SI
  • Twilight: 2000
  • Werewolf: the Apocalypse
  • Tunnels & Trolls
  • Millennium’s End
  • Aftermath
  • Over the Edge
  • Champions
  • Palladium Fantasy
  • Earthdawn
  • Rifts
  • Space 1889
  • Ars Magica
  • Feng Shui
  • Bushido
  • Mage: the Ascension
  • Rolemaster
  • GURPS
  • Wraith: the Oblivion
  • Pendragon
  • Cyberpunk
  • Shadowrun
  • Paranoia
  • Vampire: the Masquerade
  • RuneQuest
  • WFRP
  • Traveller
  • AD&D
  • Call of Cthulhu

There is an edge case here in the form of Star Wars D6, since Fantasy Flight Games recently put out a reprint of the 1st edition core rules and the Star Wars Sourcebook, but on balance I think I will not include that in the above category due to Fantasy Flight’s recent decision to shut down their RPG publishing arm entirely; yes, sure, you can still buy it from them for the time being at the time of writing, but it’s going to vanish so soon that including it in this list will become misleading very soon after I put this article out.

Still, even so there is reason to feel good about this list: whereas 18 of the games on the original top 50 were not commercially on the market at the time the list was published, now that proportion has gone down to only 10. It gets even better when we consider how many of the top 50 RPGs have had their systems cloned, even if their settings are not the subject of a currently-available game:

  • James Bond 007
  • Ghostbusters
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness
  • Stormbringer
  • Middle-Earth Roleplaying
  • Star Wars D6

Again, I am including Star Wars on this list because whilst in principle the current Star Wars RPG is still on the market – there’s even a new supplement coming out for it soon – that is going to change imminently.

This includes all the licensed RPGs I would regard as including genuinely interesting game design developments, which is a real sign of how valuable the retro-cloning movement is. This means that there are only 4 RPGs on the top 50 list where the systems themselves are outright unavailable either as legitimate purchases or as retro-clones – or only 8% where you’ll need to hit the second hand market to experience the system in question. (Indeed, thanks to many of the above fandoms having quite decent wikis associated, if you weren’t too fussy about using the exact stats the publishers used for NPCs and whatnot the experience of, say, playing Spooktacular is likely not meaningfully different from playing Ghostbusters.)

What of the remaining 4? In some cases, this is a situation where whilst the system itself is only available second hand, the setting has been re-used in a currently-available game:

  • Conspiracy X
  • Judge Dredd

In the case of Judge Dredd this is down to subsequent licensees wanting to adapt it to preferred systems (D20 and Traveller in the case of Mongoose, and then later What’s O.L.D. Is N.E.W.), in the case of Conspiracy X this comes down to Eden Studios really wanting to use Unisystem for all their properties. The lack of retro-clones of either suggests that these decisions are largely backed by the fandoms in question.

Last and arguably least, we have those games where not only is the system off the market, but there’s no currently-available product on the RPG market handling the setting either:

  • Dream Park
  • Skyrealms of Jorune

In the case of Dream Park, this may well be an issue at Niven’s end – he was persuaded to yank the Ringworld licence by his agent who thought it might clash with the movie licence, for instance – but I think it’s equally likely that it’s a niche RPG licensed off a novel which has already been largely forgotten, based on a concept which it’s difficult to design a game around without massive ludonarrative dissonance.

In the case of Jorune, again, this feels like a massive oversight. Yes, sure, there’s some fan activity and even, until recently, published fanzines. Yes, as well as the second hand market the original materials are available for download through quasi-official avenues, sufficiently openly and blatantly and sufficiently close to significant platforms of discussion of the game that I suspect the rights owners are aware on some level of this and are choosing to turn a blind eye to it. Nonetheless, it still feels like an enormous shame that such a well-celebrated RPG setting should only be available as samizdat. If the current rights owners don’t have time to tidy up the scans and do bookmarking on them and put them on DriveThruRPG themselves, I feel like producing such DriveThru-ready PDFs that can be stuck up by the rights owners with minimal effort would be a good project for a motivated fan.

Still, with this significant exception I think we can say that the industry is much healthier than it was back in 1996 when you look at it from the perspective of what systems of significant interest and importance remain available, either under their original names or cloned. There’s a pessimistic way of looking at this, which is that the industry has become increasingly retrograde in its thinking, but on the other hand it’s not like new games aren’t being published and succeeding in the marketplace – and of course this analysis is inevitably going to focus on old games, it’s based on a poll from 1996.

I, however, prefer to be optimistic on this front. If tabletop RPGs forget their history, we’re going to see people spinning their wheels and constantly reinventing the wheel rather than genuinely coming up with fresh new ideas; what are fantasy heartbreakers, after all, if not fantasy RPGs written by people who don’t have a very broad understanding of the history of the medium and don’t realise that rehashing D&D yet again isn’t going to cut it? Having these systems available means that our system is available, and whilst it will not always be the case when a game’s rights have passed from hand to hand, at least when a game is available legitimately there is at least a chance that someone involved in its original release might get a cut of the sales, whereas when a game is sold second hand then it’s certain that nobody makes any money out of that except the individual seller.

3 thoughts on “The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

  1. Pingback: A Retro Idea of Retro – Refereeing and Reflection

  2. This is great! Thank you for sharing it.

    The publication of this list, which I never saw in the US, happens to correspond with a time shortly after I stopped paying attention to table-top role-playing games. It’s a trip down memory lane, covering much of the early hobby. I, too, would have put Call of Cthulhu at number 1, for many reasons. D&D is drastically overrated, in my view.

    I remember my copy of SkyRealms of Jorune. The setting was so weird that I didn’t know what to do with it, and no player of mine wanted to try it. Settings so “rich,” and pre-determined, are bound to acquire cult status if they have cool art accompanying them, but rarely achieve widespread interest. I think of Empire of the Petal Throne, another game I owned, along with supplements, but never ran. I didn’t want to run classes on the setting of Tékumel for my players before we played. I also completely forgot Space: 1889 and lots of others from the list of which I owned copies and never actually played.

    It seems as if Traveller has always been a lot more popular across the Atlantic than in the US. The sci-fi game of choice when I was a kid was Star Frontiers, marketed alongside D&D. Not a great game, in fact. And I have no idea why the Ghostbusters game is on this list.

    The main oversight I see from their old list is the absence of HârnMaster and the setting that preexisted it. (Was that not marketed in the UK?) For the gamers today who aim for the so-called “Authentic Medieval” fantasy, they have missed perhaps the most thorough and convincing effort at achieving that goal (or what I think they mean by “authentic”) in a wholly created setting–that is, a setting that is “authentic medieval” by just saying it’s an alternate version of western Europe, like Runequest 3e’s Fantasy Earth.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about one of your closing points. Game developers continue to reinvent the wheel, and often they do it worse than the old games. A lot of them seem to have little idea about the formative history of the hobby, and that includes the self-anointed “old-school” gamers.

    1. Harn was marketed here, or at least it made it into distribution. I think it may have been hampered by the way so many of the materials hinged on you having three-ring binders to dump the pages in – binders which would have been rare over here, where 2-ring binders are the standard.

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