There are no runners-up for this award, just one winner. However, since the choice was so excruciating (2002 was definitely a good year for indie games), I could not help but to first give a nod to Clinton Nixon's Paladin: This game explores very deep issues like living up to a moral code, controlling light and dark energy (think "The Force"), and doing what you know to be right in the face of bending or breaking that moral code- A very mature game. The character generation and action mechanics are simple, but the rules regarding the ebb and flow of a character's Animus, the "life force" that the PCs use to affect the world around them, are very detailed. It reminds me of the old Star Wars game pulled inside-out: Instead of having "The Force" tacked on to the end of your skills and stats, your character is fundamentally seeped in and bound by The Force, and stats and skills flow from that source. Good stuff.
This game blew my socks off. Charnel Gods is essentially a supplement - in this case kind of alike to a "mod" or "total conversion" for a PC game - for the RPG Sorcerer (and tweaked to also make use of the Sorcerer supplement for running Pulp Fantasy style games, Sorcerer and Sword) by Ron Edwards. I was intrigued by it enough to buy it on a whim when I heard about its release, and was ceaselessly surprised at the turn of every page (after I printed it out, that is: Charnel Gods is a PDF). Here are just a few of its many virtues:
In short, the game is very well written, and what's more, you can flip open to any page in this PDF, point randomly at any part of the page, and I guarantee you that within a 5cm radius of your fingertip are no fewer than three pregnant story ideas or plot hooks.
Scott Knipe's Charnel Gods is an excellent work that deserves to be on the bookshelf (in a binder, mind you) of any fan of dark fantasy literature or games.