Last year, when I chose a game for this award, I was so torn between two games that I was forced to give one mention, a "nod" as it were. This year, after a few weeks of going through all the games I recognized (and man, there were a boatload of excellent games that came out last year), I came down to three games, so this year we'll see two nods. After seeing the excellent flood of games coming out in 2004, I suspect I'll have dozen nods next year:
I would have missed this game had I not read the Coming of Conan collection this year, being exposed to wonderful pulp fantasy novella. While I am unfamiliar with the Lemuria stories, this game succinctly captures the feel of pulp fantasy in rules that are both simple and familiar (Hit Points, Attributes) and at the same time innovative in a way that really reflects the source material- That is giving out "Classes" like candy, and making them active in almost every die roll that the player makes. This game is excellently produced in a free PDF, with easy-to-understand explanations and rules descriptions that will have you playing in minutes, depending on how fast you can read. A great game that has mileage both as a "one shot" game or a longer "campaign-based" game.
So very close to a perfect cinematic game. For $5, you get a game that completely and utterly mimics the feel of high action Wuxia movies, and on top of that is playable 'right out of the box'. Between the concise and elegant mook rules, to the way that every action is easier to perform the more complicated or involved it is described, it's a real work of art. The core PDF rules are a little hindered by lack of examples, oragnization, and rules clarifications, but if this game is ever revised and edited it would be one killer of a game. It really made me take a second look at action in gaming, including how I run action scenes in my regular games. That, plus it's imminent playability make it a great buy for anyone who digs elegant action scenes in movies and other media.
FATE is one of the rarest finds for me in the RPG world: A generic game system that doesn't make me think "Well, why not just use X instead?" Physically, it is a downloadable Free PDF, but the art, layout, quality of writing, rules explanations and production value put most print games to shame. Rulewise, it's a slick, easy to learn game that has tons of options for character generation or play, but is also completely customizable. It was originally built using the tools provided by the Fudge RPG, but completely surpasses basic Fudge in playability and elegance of design. I'm one who can just wax poetic about games forever, so here's a hard list of virtues.
* It's easily adaptable to about any genre of play without special rules or fiddly bits. I ran an over-the-top "Chronicles of Riddick" game back to back with a "Call of Cthulhu" style low-power suspense/horror game without changing any of the background rules.
* It puts elements of your character like Moral Code, Beliefs, Background Elements, and other character bits, the parts that are normally lumped in the "My Character's Background" paragraph that the GM never reads, Right At The Top of the character sheet. It gives them scores, and makes them about as important as abilities or skills.
* On top of that, character generation for people who've never played the game takes about five minutes, no rulebook consultation on what abilities do what. Many small games can boast this claim, but few will have you with a character sheet that looks comperable to a GURPS or d20 character.
* The core of the game is a simple die-rolling system, but it's not just another "froo froo rules-lite game". The rules feel light (FATE is certainly an easy read), but they're also complete. There's no missing parts.
* It is a complete RPG, well written, with play examples that will have you understanding the inner works of the game system on the first read.
* Dramatic conflict is scalable from "one roll wins all" to "traditional combat/action rounds". The scale is smooth and easy to understand, and there are several examples of each stlye of conflict so you're not left wondering how it may look until you try it yourself. The benefits and drawbacks of each are explained clearly.
* It's built upon the exellent (if a little unorganized) Fudge system, but carries it to a new level.
* The FATE community is extremely responsive, and there's tons of free stuff and web tools to be found for this game.
In the end, I can hardly believe that this game is a free download, especially given the quality of the layout. Some months ago I downloaded the PDF, printed it on my local printer, punched it and threw it into a three-ring, and have played it more times than I can easily remember. I would have easily paid $40 for this game as-is, for the amount of play I got out of it.